Upon finishing this formidable tome of almost one thousand pages, my sense was that readers could only find it, as I did, emotionally stirring. The book—whose title translates into English as Japan in the Pacific War: The System of Government, the Political Decision-making Process, and the Quest for Peace—tells the story of the rise and fall, and the fortunes and misfortunes, of an influential Japanese elite—events constituting the most dramatic years in modern Japanese history. By choosing the ideals of civilization and enlightenment, Japan joined the West to become a responsible member of the international community, its diplomats an asset to the nation. The country then took a path that would lead to dire consequences. How did all this come about? Why, during the 1930s, did Japan turn so militaristic? Aggressive toward its neighbors and ruthlessly exploiting the interests of other powers, Japan justified its crimes with a litany of excuses about their necessity for security and prosperity while suffocating its population under the guise of patriotism.
Gerhard Krebs focuses on the Pacific War and on the opportunities Japan missed to maintain a peaceful status quo. The book begins at a time when the clear leadership that circumstances called for was not forthcoming and foreign relations had become conspicuously messy. The government, under the control of the army and navy, who—as the constitution unfortunately allowed—overturned the cabinet ad libitum, was caught up in the wrong kind of choices. Britain and the United States could no longer accept Japan's expansionism to the south and into the Asian continent, especially not its undeclared war in China. The situation [End Page 193] was worsened by Japan's growing alignment with the totalitarian regime in Nazi Germany. It was obvious the country was playing with fire. Joined by the Netherlands, including the Dutch Indies, Britain and the United States imposed an embargo on imports, which hit Japan hard as it badly needed energy and natural resources. The sanctions were not intended as mere economic measures but were an unambiguous strategy to force Japan to abandon her belligerent actions. But by August 1941, when China had been at war for four years and Europe was fearful that its own war would widen, Japan's radical militarists were already bent on taking Japan even further along its hostile path.
The book aims to analyze the decision-making processes and to offer a close-up view of the councils, boards, and governmental bodies that in one way or another served the public interest. In doing so, it draws attention to new sources that have only become available in recent years. They include material hitherto unknown, often because people were hesitant to go public with diaries and records—whether because they were unaware of their historical value or reluctant to reveal themselves in a bad light, or out of consideration for their colleagues and their families.
The first chapter discusses the constitutional background and lays out the main players. Many democratic institutions still in existence are easily recognizable, though of course they were under pressure from the military at the time. The emperor was surrounded by a considerable body of court officials, among them the minister of the Imperial Household (kunaidaijin), the lord keeper of the privy seal (naidaijin), the lord high chamberlain (jijūchō), and the aide-de-camp to the emperor (jijūbukanchō), the highest attendant to report on military affairs. From 1933, it was customary for former prime ministers to be selected as jūshin, serving as informal advisers to the emperor and replacing the select group of elder statesmen who had performed that function as genrō, a designation established in the early days of the Meiji government. Also near to the emperor were the Privy Council (sūmitsuin), and last but not least the Imperial Princes, who did not always agree with the emperor but were in a favorable position to tell him the truth when circumstances required. The princes were respected and were seen during the war as sympathetic to a demoralized...